The case had been seen as a vehicle for clarification of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that requires "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities at work and in public facilities.
But after hearing nearly an hour of oral arguments on Wednesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the case "may not be so significant."
Adding to its complications, even the lawyer for the worker, Ella Williams, said he believes an appellate court ruling in favor of his client was faulty.
Attorney Robert Rosenbaum said the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was correct in saying Williams was entitled to protection under ADA, but it made mistakes in the opinion that reached that conclusion.
Rosenbaum said Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc. of Georgetown, Ky., violated the ADA by failing to make adequate accommodation for Williams' disability. She said she could not wipe down newly painted car bodies because of pain in her hands and arms.
Toyota, which earlier reassigned her from using pneumatic tools on the assembly line, fired her after she stopped going to work at the paint shop.
The high court justices, visibly struggling to come to grips with the definition of disability, were less confrontational than usual with lawyers in the case. On several occasions, they simply asked the lawyers what they would have the court do.
Toyota attorney John Roberts argued that Williams is not disabled and that the 6th Circuit's decision should be reversed.
They could do so and spell out on their own how they believe disability should be defined. Or they could do so and let a lower court's summary judgment in Toyota's favor stand. Or they could do so and order a lower court trial or a new appellate court opinion.
Hope for clarity
The U.S. government, through the solicitor general's office, joined the argument on Toyota's side, saying the 6th Circuit's decision should be reversed.
Assistant Solicitor General Barbara McDowell said the decision, if upheld, would extend disability protection to anyone unable to do "a job."
Outside the court, Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the danger in the case is that it could turn the ADA into a national worker's compensation program.
"This would be the first time the court's ever decided that the inability to perform certain aspects of a job qualify as a disability. Our view is, this would in effect turn the ADA into the 'Americans With Injuries Act,' " he said.
Also outside the court, Rosenbaum said he believes justices may still use the case "to make broad pronouncements about the ADA and give guidance to people across the country as to what an ADA disability really means."
Said Roberts: "The more guidance we can get the better off everybody will be."